Upon the 70th Anniversary of Hiroshima & Nagasaki

Hiroshima Japan

70 years ago this week the United States dropped the world’s first nuclear weapon on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later, we dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki. This week, I’m thinking about Mairi Cain. Mairi grew up in Fukuoka, halfway between the two cities. She was a young woman in 1945.

Mairi died a little over a year ago. I got to know her in August of 2012, when she and her husband needed someone to shop for them and look in on them; her son and my son were out of town for a month, working, and I volunteered to help. One day, something came on the TV that reminded her of the bombing and she was very upset. Mairi did “upset” by getting angry; her husband explained to me what it was all about while she had stomped off to another room.

Another day she talked about it a little bit; her English was shaky at best, my Japanese nonexistent, so I was glad I knew the basic outline of the story ahead of time. It was clear to me that she was still suffering from the terror of the experience, and from the memory of starvation during the war.

I’d never met anyone who had been in Japan in 1945. All the WWII survivors I knew were either American vets or Europeans. I had learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in school, and learned the standard explanation that the nuclear bombing “saved lives.” I’d never questioned it – and then I met this tiny old woman, who was still feeling the terror of it 60+ years later. I’d never thought much about what it meant for the civilians on the ground, besides the recorded fact that it killed 120,000 people immediately and many more over the weeks, months and years to follow.

It saved American lives. Japan was a particularly cruel enemy. Those were the things I had learned in school, and in conversations with my parent’s generation.

I am part of the Baby Boomer generation who grew up with “nuclear drills,” in the shadow of our imaginings about The Bomb. Mairi didn’t have to imagine: she’d been Bombed. I could not understand a great deal of what she had to say about it, but I know trauma when I see it.

There are articles in the news this week that question Truman’s decision to drop the Bomb, and other articles that defend it. What I notice is that his decision is always cast as “drop it” vs “don’t drop it.” This bothers me.

As Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer put it to us when I was a rabbinical student, our human brains tend to reduce choices to binaries, especially under stress. It all goes back to that first important crisis: fight or flight? Fight the big scary predator or run like mad? There was never much time to make that decision (the third option being “stand there and be lunch”) so our brains adapted to it. We go there quickly, and we tend not to see other options.

“Don’t start analyzing until you have brainstormed at least five options,” he said to us. “Force yourself to do it, and force the people you advise to think of more options than the two they bring to you.” It has been valuable advice to me time and time again: almost always, there is another, better option than the first two.

So I wonder: what if Truman had brainstormed three more choices, besides “drop it on Hirshima” and “don’t drop it on Hiroshima?” Could we have made it clear to the Japanese what a destructive weapon it was by dropping it on a deserted atoll? Could we have described it to the Japanese, and said, “We will use this unless you sign?” Could we have come up with another option?

I don’t know, and at this point it is done. What we do know is that the bomb that terrified Mairi unleashed a new terror upon all of us.

May the tragedy of that day serve as a warning to all of us, in decisions great and small, to stop, to think, to look for options. The Torah tells us to “Choose life.” Sometimes it is very hard to know behind which door it lies.

Image: US government, Post-Work: User:W.wolnyibiblio.org a collaboration of the centerforthepublicdomain.org  Effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. View from the top of the Red Cross Hospital looking northwest. Frame buildings recently erected. 1945  Public domain.

How Super is the Super Bowl?

What are you doing during the Super Bowl?
Echoes of Ancient Rome?

There’s something interesting cooking in the American Jewish zeitgeist right now. Two rabbis I respect are independently raising questions about football in general and the Super Bowl in particular.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz points out that homeless people and services for them have been displaced in downtown Phoenix, AZ by something called “The NFL Experience,” a shopping venue offering NFL and Super Bowl merchandise. (Boycotting the Super Bowl, Standing With the Homeless! in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles) He raises the ethical issue: in what sort of society are human beings treated like so much garbage to be pushed aside for sports memorabilia? He raises the image of the gladiatorial battles in ancient Rome, something our sages held in contempt. Rabbi Yanklowitz therefore calls for a boycott of the Super Bowl.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs writes of his own change of heart regarding both college and pro football in Will You Bow at the Altar of Football Violence? on his blog, Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He writes, “the combination of limitless violence and limitless adulation for student athletes is a lethal combination” resulting in shameful sexual and domestic violence off the field and the cumulative damage done by “routine” football injuries. He, too, calls for a boycott of the Super Bowl.

I’m an alumna of the University of Tennessee and have been a fan of the Vols for 40 years. However, I see now that there was a disconnect in my thinking. I’d walk to class Monday mornings in the fall of 1973, and see star quarterback Condredge Holloway hobbling to class. The guy would play brilliant, full-hearted football on Saturday and Monday morning he moved like a little old man, he was so beat up. Also, there was a definite hierarchy on campus: football took precedence over everything else, including the education of football players and everyone else. Even knowing all that, I never considered the ethical questions until recently, as scandals have proliferated both on the college and pro levels.

Here are some questions I’m pondering, and that I invite you to consider:

  1. Why support football, as it exists today, which is so destructive of the health of its players? We are commanded, as Jews, to preserve life and to view bodies as precious gifts.
  2. Why support an organization (the NFL) that is so cavalier about violence towards women that it took months and a video of a man beating his fiancé to unconsciousness to get more than a slap on the wrist? As a Jew, can I give those people the support of watching a game, much less buying a ticket to any NFL game?
  3. Why are we pouring millions into a single entertainment event when so many people in the same city are homeless? We are the same nation to whom the prophet Amos said, “Thus said God: … I will not revoke [my wrath]. Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals. Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course!” Amos 2:6
  4. What does it say about us that we’ll pay astronomical sums in salaries and endorsements for star athletes to bash each others’ brains out, and we will encourage our children to see them as heroes? Our sages viewed the Roman games with such contempt that they taught that one could only attend in order to save a life or give evidence as to a death, in order to obtain legal rights for a widow. (Avodah Zarah 18b)

Every Jew has to make up his or her own mind about these things. However, it isn’t sufficient to reply, “It’s fun!”  We have a sacred duty, as Jews, to speak up when something is wrong.  We have it in our power, as consumers, to (1) stay away, as the two rabbis above are doing or (2) protest via op-eds and letters or (3) demand change in the NFL, college football, and other venues.

What do you think? What will you do?

After I posted this piece, I received a tweet from Rabbi Avraham Bronstein of Great Neck Synagogue in Great Neck, NY. He’s interested in these issues as well: @AvBronstein: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/what-and-who-we-sacrifice-on-the-gridiron/

A Suffering Dog – What Does Torah Require?

Look for the dog in this photo.
Look for the dog in this photo.

Kindness to animals is not merely a “good deed.” Unnecessary cruelty to animals (Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim) is repeatedly forbidden in the Torah.

It’s getting warm outside. You see an animal locked into a hot vehicle. You think, “Is this my business?” and I assure you, the Torah commands that we act when a fellow creature is suffering.  In Exodus 23:5:

If you see a donkey belonging to someone who hates you fallen down under its burden, you may not pass by him, and you must surely release him.

Even if the animal is owned by an enemy, even if it is a work animal fallen down working, we may not pass by and we must surely help. An unusual grammatical construction in the Hebrew (“must surely help”) underlines the urgency of this commandment.

Why does the Torah add “belonging to someone who hates you?” The reaction of the owner – their feelings about us – are not part of the equation. If they are angry that we “meddled,” so be it.

So what are my options when I see an animal locked in a car on a hot day? This happened to me this past week: I saw the dog in the photo above locked in a truck in 90 degree heat (outside – goodness knows what it was inside the truck.) I had been parked next to the truck for 15 minutes waiting for a friend (I was drinking water, with the windows down to catch the breeze) before I noticed the dog. He was panting heavily and had no water.

I took a photo of the dog (above) and of the license plate of the truck, and went inside the business to find help. The business has a security guard, who walked back with me to check the situation. As we walked, a couple sprinted by us and released the dog from the car, taking him out on a leash. The man walked rapidly away with the dog, and the woman walked back to the business, telling us that she “appreciated our concern” but that they had been “checking on the dog every ten minutes.” The security person chose to drop the matter there.

Did the couple understand that they had been cruel to the dog? Probably not. My impression was that they wanted to avoid trouble. It is my hope that they will avoid trouble in future by not torturing the dog.

I share this story because I want to let you know that Torah requires we act when we see a suffering animal. Judaism is very clear about this: while it is permitted to kill and eat some animals for food, we are required to do so with a minimum of pain to the animal. That’s what we are paying for when we pay extra for kosher meat: we are paying for rabbinic supervision certifying that the animal was slaughtered in a kosher fashion. There are a lot of controversies about whether kosher methods are still the kindest available, and a growing number of Jews and others have elected a vegan lifestyle to completely avoid cruelty to animals. However, the principle itself stands: we are not permitted even to witness unnecessary cruelty to animals. It is up to each of us to determine exactly where we will draw the line of necessity.

Nothing about that dog’s situation looked “necessary” to me.

So, if you see an animal suffering in a car in the heat, what can you do?  If it is outside a place of business, notify the business (the dog or ar owner is likely there.) If that doesn’t produce immediate results, call the police with a description of the car, the dog, the license plate, and location. There are laws against animal cruelty in many locales. Keep trying until help arrives.

I would be very reluctant to break a window on the car. Breaking the window gets us into a whole new set of questions. Also, if we’re talking about dogs, unless the dog has collapsed from the heat, there’s always the possibility that the dog will run off and get hurt in traffic or that it will try to protect the car and bite.

May we each have courage and resourcefulness when faced with a situation requiring action!

Upcoming Classes in Lafayette, CA

Classes meet in this building.
Classes meet in this building.

For Bay Area readers of this blog:

My Sunday morning classes at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA will begin on January 5.

Jewish History: Exploring Judaism begins a five week look at Jewish Texts and History. Yes, five weeks, five hours for thousands of years of history, also known as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through Jewish History. If you have wondered what the rabbi means by mishnah or how that’s different from midrash, this is a great short survey class.  Class starts at 9am sharp and runs to 10am. We have coffee, and if you want to bring your breakfast along, no one will mind. Members of the class include people in the adult b’nei mitzvah program at Temple Isaiah, folks considering conversion, and some friends-of-Jews who are interested in learning more about Judaism – a great class!  Join us!

Text Study: The same morning, January 5 at 10:15am we’ll begin a Jewish Ethics class which will take a look at Ethics of the Fathers, a first-century document of homespun advice from the sages. This is perhaps the most accessible book in rabbinic literature, and we’re going to read parts of it together. The class will have a read-and-discuss format, exactly the opposite of the Wild Ride in the previous class. Hebrew proficiency is not required.

Both classes meet in the Contra Costa Jewish Day School building, at the top of the Temple Isaiah parking lot. The building is completely accessible.

To register for these classes, and to see the other offerings in Isaiah’s great Sunday morning lineup, go to this page on the temple website.


Nothing is Wasted

After hour depository (dropbox) of the old Exc...
After hour depository of the old Exchange National Bank building, in downtown Tampa, Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I prepare for a class that simply doesn’t happen.  I had one of those this week:  I was to teach a three-week class on Food and Jewish Ethics, and the timing simply wasn’t right.  There were not enough people signed up, and the management at Lehrhaus Judaica and I regretfully pulled the plug.

It’s a pity, because I was really excited about it.  I was going to spend the first class meeting talking a bit about how Jews do ethics.  Then we were going to brainstorm what ethical issues come up when one contemplates the dinner table, and choose two to four topics to hash out over the remaining classes.  The specifics would be driven by their interests.  But 10 am on Wednesdays was not a good time, despite some interest, so we’ll have to find another time slot and give it a go perhaps in the fall, perhaps in the evening.

So, was the preparation a waste?  Not at all.  For one thing, those lovingly prepared lesson plans are waiting in my Dropbox folder for another opportunity.  All I will need to do is refresh my memory, see if any new ideas have sprouted in the back of my mind since I prepared them, and I’m off to the races.  So that’s all good.

But there’s a deeper reason why it wasn’t a waste:  time spent studying Torah is never wasted.  I approach my own table now with renewed awareness.  When I pick up a piece of nice matzah, I am drawn to read the back of the box:  where did it come from?  Who made it?  When I look at the vegetables in the fridge, I am much more aware of a host of  issues.  The chapters I read on hunger led  to check on the status supplies at my local food bank (not good), leading me to dig a little deeper for tzedakah.

As Mishnah Peah 1.1 says, “Talmud Torah keneged kulam” — “the study of Torah leads to them all” [the things that are valuable both in this world and in the world to come.]

And those are my thoughts at the beginning of Day 5 of the Omer.